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The following review appeared 17 December 2007 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 2007 Mark Twain Forum
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Author Peter Krass is no beginner to biographical writing. His previous works include a biography of Andrew Carnegie (Carnegie, 2002 ); a biography of Jack Daniel, Blood & Whiskey: The Life and Times of Jack Daniel, (2004); and Portrait of War: The U.S. Army's First Combat Artists and the Doughboys' Experience in WWI (2006); along with a seven-book series called The Business Wisdom Series.
In Ignorance, Confidence, and Filthy Rich Friends, Krass separates Sam Clemens from Mark Twain. Mark Twain was a talented wordsmith, both in his writing and his public speaking. At issue in this work is Sam Clemens and his efforts to remain financially afloat in a difficult American economic era. The underlying theme appears to be an idea that Clemens was more interested in making money than in creating literature. The 278-page volume is divided into nine chapters, each followed by a short essay headed "Quirky Habits and Brazen Philosophy," with a subtitle and subject relative to the chapter. Chapters are in a chronological order to follow Clemens's life.
The book title is perhaps catchy, but two-thirds of it is not sustained by the content. Clemens was not an ignorant man. He made some foolish and unwise decisions regarding investments, but ignorance is not a synonym for foolishness. There is ample evidence he was confident that his decisions were right, in some cases overconfidence would be more accurate. "Filthy rich friends" implies some financial arrangement between more than one rich acquaintance. Clemens was indeed acquainted with more than one rich American of his day. How deep each "friendship" went is speculative. And only one wealthy friend made Clemens a moderate cash loan, although he did provide Clemens with a whole school of financial guidance and mentoring. That friend was Henry Rogers, a top officer in the monopolistic Standard Oil companies. Among many acquaintances, only Rogers would loan Clemens the $4,000 to stave off bankruptcy. Rogers became a financial advisor offering Clemens inside information that today would lead to jail time. At the time the insider game was both legal and common.
Clemens had polyglot interests, many of which did bring him financial returns. In the wild ups and downs of the stock market during the latter 1800s, he also suffered losses. But there was one project in particular that he could not let go, despite the best urging of friends--the typesetting machine. Here is an example of the confidence Krass cites in the title. Clemens was confident, to the point of foolhardiness, that the machine would work. A typesetter himself in his early years, Clemens recognized the importance of such a device. But his blind faith in a tinkerer-inventor brought him to the edge of ruin. James W. Paige, the man attempting to create the typesetting machine with Clemens's funding, was in a competitive race with Ottmar Merganthaler, who was creating the more successful Linotype machine. Clemens hung on, pumping money into Paige's invention until 1894, eight years after Mergenthaler had begun production of what would become the standard of typesetting for the next hundred years. Another example of Clemens's financial over-confidence was his investments in a carpet weaving machine.
Clemens did have some successful inventions of his own including a form of men's suspenders. Another creation, highly remunerative to Clemens, was Mark Twain's Self-pasting Scrapbook. His publishing business, Webster and Company, flourished with publication of General Ulysses S. Grant's memoirs, along with Twain's own writing, only to flounder and finally fail when Clemens could not let go of another overwhelming project, The Library of American Literature. Clemens ultimately fell back on the lecture circuit to pay off his creditors after his market ventures went bust. Showing the "confidence" of Krass's title, he knew he could succeed on the lecture circuit.
In too many places Krass's choice of words seem a bit colloquial. Readers a few years from now may not comprehend the street wording when Krass writes: "the nature of typesetting molded the boy [Sam Clemens] into an exacting--you might say anal--perfectionist" (p. 12). In an extraneous comment about a letter to his business manager (p. 103) Krass gratuitously offers: "Thankfully [Webster] was spared e-mail signed with a ':)', which is surely the scourge of the corporate world, sucking away valuable time (and leaving a tidy trail for snooping district attorneys)." Krass does not identify the symbol as an "emoticon." The reference to snooping district attorneys is unclear. On another page he observes that "The exploding network of railroads--the Gilded Age's equivalent of Internet play and eventual dot-bombs--provided huge returns for those investors who timed the market with clairvoyance" (p. 124). The so-called "dot-com bubble" that burst in 2001 is transient market history. These insertions and aside comments seem to interrupt the flow of the discussion rather than enhance it.
In some instances, Krass's research seems shallow. Having discussed John Marshall Clemens's belief that land would appreciate rapidly in value, on page 6 he tells us of the elder Clemens's purchase in Missouri:
"Land was cheap, too--$1.25 an acre if bought in bulk--as the government sold off the Louisiana Purchase, which presented yet another chance for Marshall to mercilessly overextend himself. Betting little Florida [Missouri] would eventually host a railroad depot, he bought hundreds of surrounding acres. Unfortunately, the railroad was built through Paris, Missouri, 10 miles away. Ah, location, location, location."
However, records on the websites of the Bureau of Land Management and the Secretary of State of Missouri indicate John Marshall Clemens purchased only 160 acres of federal land at $1.25 and two purchases of 40 acres each, one at $2.52 per acre and the other at $4.025 per acre, both from the State School Lands grant. Two hundred twenty acres is not what the word "hundreds" conjures up in the reader's mind.
Krass is also guilty of making the same geographic error Ron Powers made in Mark Twain, A Life (2005). Both Powers and Krass seem to think the Humboldt mining district and the Esmeralda mining district were in the same location in Nevada. Krass says (p. 34) "After spending nearly a year of toil and futile hope in Humboldt County... [Clemens and Higbie] stumble across a blind lead...." Clemens was in the Humboldt district east of the Comstock for a few days. The blind lead was in Esmeralda district, about 65 air miles south of the Comstock (Virginia City) while the Humboldt district is about 108 air miles northeast of the Comstock. Clemens spent about six months in Aurora, Esmeralda mining district, and only a few days in the Humboldt mining district. Clemens never spent "nearly a year" as a miner at any one mining camp.
Krass goes on to tell us Clemens's partner Cal Higbie left to "investigate a cement-making operation...." There was no cement, and no operation, it was a "lost" mining claim in which the gold and silver were embedded in ore as though locked in cement. These are errors of research which lead to questions about the balance of Krass's study.
For some sources, Krass cites the convenient online Gutenberg Project file of Mark Twain letters as compiled in 1917 by Albert Bigelow Paine (http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=3199), as well as a number of secondary works. The Gutenberg Project presents about 500 letters. We can only wonder what Krass missed by failing to review the 2,300-plus annotated letters published by the Mark Twain Project at the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley. A full volume of the UC series is devoted to the Mark Twain-Henry H. Rogers correspondence.
A recent volume by another publisher and author, Hatching Ruin: Mark Twain's Road to Bankruptcy by Charles H. Gold (University of Missouri Press, 2003) focuses more directly on Clemens's business failures than does Krass's Ignorance, Confidence, and Filthy Rich Friends. Gold's bibliography is also more extensive than Krass's. Krass tries to take a broader look at Clemens's business ventures than does Gold, but Krass seems to fall a bit short on the positive side of Sam Clemens and his money. Krass does compile much information about Clemens and his business ventures, and in a highly readable narrative. In Ignorance, Confidence and Filthy Rich Friends the reader will find a reasoned overview of Clemens's business ventures. A hard-nosed editor would have improved the flow, removing the extraneous comments and gratuitous insertions. For the casual reader who is mildly curious about Sam Clemens's financial life, Krass's volume works as long as it is not taken as well-researched scholarship. No compelling argument is presented to convince us that writing was less important to Mark Twain than making money. For the serious Clemens/Twain student, seeking to understand how Mark Twain's financial ups and downs might have affected his literary efforts, it falls short.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Robert Stewart is a long-time resident of
Nevada and author of Aurora, Nevada's Ghost City of the Dawn (Nevada
Publications, Reno, 2004). Mark Twain's ties to Aurora, a now-vanished mining
camp, first sparked Stewart's interest in researching Twain's adventures in
Nevada, and then Mark Twain in general.